The dead of winter

Our place in the Jewish year.

The end of Tevet and the beginning of Shvat is usually the period of the winter doldrums. Here in Israel, this year we are at least being entertained - if that is the correct word - by the activities of our political leaders as they scramble to secure their places in the forthcoming general elections two months hence. But there is already a longing within us for the springtime, for warmer weather and brighter sunshine and for the promise, hope and joy that the holidays of Purim and Pessah bring to us. Tevet is a month that incorporated within it the tail end of Hanukka but also the sad day of fasting of the 10th of Tevet. Shvat, however, is the harbinger of the better days ahead. The Mishna and Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashana describe Shvat as the month of the new year of the fruits of the trees. Since tithing was and is necessary regarding fruits grown here in our holy land of Israel, a "new year" day for fruits had to be established so that the proper tithing could be assigned to the proper year's fruit production. Neither tithing nor the other required agricultural "gifts" and rituals that so sanctify the produce of the Land of Israel cannot be accomplished "from the old on the new nor from the new on the old." Therefore, it is imperative to know when the old year ends and the new year begins. This is the basic reason why the Mishna and Talmud in Rosh Hashana detail for us the advent of Shvat as being one of the four "new years" in the annual Jewish calendar. The Mishna and the Talmud there in Rosh Hashana record for us the two opinions of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel as to which day of Shvat begins this new year. Beit Shamai is of the opinion that the first day of Shvat is the day of the new year's beginning for the laws and rituals concerning "new" and "old" fruits; Beit Hillel is of the opinion that it is the 15th day of Shvat that marks the beginning of the new year. Jewish law and tradition follows the opinion of Beit Hillel. Thus Tu (15) Bishvat is the minor holiday and day of commemoration that highlights the otherwise potentially dreary month of Shvat. The fact that Shvat is so inextricably connected to fruit and trees and produce of the Land of Israel automatically grants it the honor of being the harbinger of the end of the days of the dead of winter and the beginning of the more pleasant and hopeful period of the springtime here in our beautiful country. The Talmud explains the reasoning and halachic grounding for the opinions of both Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel. However, both opinions concur that it is the month of Shvat that takes center stage in the emergence of the Jewish calendar from the depths of winter. In the long winter night of Jewish exile, when the phrase "dead of winter" was often given literal meaning through the persecution of the Jews by many heartless and cruel enemies, the coming of the month of Shvat signified renewed hope for a better and more secure Jewish future. Shvat represented a turning point in time and therefore in actions and hopes. It was the source of Jewish memory regarding the Land of Israel, its trees and fruits and farmlands. It told Jews in the far lands of their dispersion and exile that there would yet come a time that they and their descendants would yet plant trees and harvest their fruits in the Land of Israel. It reminded them of their past glories and illuminated the darkness of the winter of exile and dispersion. The custom of having new fruit, preferably from the Land of Israel itself, on one's table in the month of Shvat was an expression of longing and love. It survived all the years of exile because it was bound in ritual, Halacha and holy commitment. It made Jewish memory of the Land of Israel imminent, omnipresent and real. The Zionist movement was built on this faith and religious memory and element. The decline of secular Zionism as an inspirational force in the Jewish world can be traced directly to its foolish abandonment of Judaism and its Halacha and practices. As we emerge from the dead of winter with the coming of the month of Shvat and its new year's greetings and blessings to us, we would do well to remember the spiritual content that lies behind the arrival of this new month. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (